Thursday, May 6, 2004
incentives for teachers
Why incentives for teachers are a bad idea. Teaching is an act of creation: the creation of a new, richer, improved cognitive structure in the mind of the pupil. This can occur through increasing the amount of information stored in that mind (such as learning the batting averages of a baseball player); it can occur through the generation of new connections among the pieces of information stored (like developing an understanding of the physics of the curve ball through a consideration of spin, velocity, and air conditions); most dramatically, it can occur through a radical reorganization of the pattern of connections (through understand how baseball is “not only a game” but is indelibly seared into the self identity of New Yorkers and Bostonians). Creativity in teaching is all about this process. The teacher needs to focus, in a series of one on one or one on many interactions, on the way in which her/his students learn. Unless the teacher focuses on this process, it will be hard for the teacher to adjust the teaching style to match the varied learning styles of the students. Financial incentives will disrupt this focus in two ways: incentives are given for irrelevant behaviors; incentives reduce the intrinsic motivation of the joy of teaching. What will incentives be given for? We now live in a world with teacher incentives: incentives for special training, incentives for higher degrees. This leads teachers into the pursuit of credentials, not, except incidentally, into better teaching. What then would be the criteria for “effective teaching?” There are two relatively simple criteria that might be used: Both are flawed. The first is to have students rate the teacher’s effectiveness, but this tends to develop into a popularity contest with teachers abandoning their professional responsibilities to do what most pleases the students. There is some evidence that higher ratings are associated with grading leniency, at least for average teachers. Another flaw is that teachers are judged relative to their peers. That is student’s mean ratings are anchored to the average level of teacher performance in the school. Even in a school with a superior level of teaching, a quarter of the teachers will be stigmatized as being in the bottom 25%. Similarly in a truly awful school, there will be teachers in the top 10% even if these would be at the bottom of the heap if they taught in a better school. The second criterion is to look at test scores, or at graduation rates, or at college placement. Although it can be argued that these are reasonable criteria that demonstrate the fruits of learning, good teaching is only one of the factors that lead to success. The quality of the intake is more critical, hence Harvard’s success. It is very difficult to control these factors to obtain an accurate assessment of the teacher’s contribution to the success of their students. A third criterion would be to look at the improvement in students over time. The problem here is that teachers will focus on those students in the middle of the pack who have both the capacity to improve and room to improve. They will be less likely to focus on those at the bottom of the class who may have difficulty learning, nor those at the top of the class who don’t need the teacher’s attention to each a relatively high standard of performance. It is hard to see how incentives for teachers will do anything to enhance the activity of teaching. Incentives are the anticipated outcomes for successfully reaching some level of performance; as such they focus attention on the outcome rather than on the process of reaching that outcome. Moreover they reduce or inhibit the intrinsic value of the work process. Students who work with incentivised teachers become means to ends rather than ends in themselves. The teacher worries about the student’s grades or the test scores result rather than on whether the student has learned anything. Incentives for teachers are an idea whose time should not come.